Hopeful homeless: New shelter inspires county-wide support

First Posted: 12/19/2014

ROCKINGHAM — People in Richmond County once called the “hidden homeless” are now the “hopeful homeless,” thanks to a community that came together to establish a new shelter over a period of just a few months.

Daily donations from school groups, churches, businesses and individuals have been pouring in at the Place of Grace Rescue Mission since before its grand opening in September with humble beginnings as a temporary tent ministry for the homeless.

“At least 30 churches, maybe more, have given money, food, clothes,” said the Rev. Gary Richardson of New Life Church. “And at least 15 businesses. Without exact numbers, all I can say is there have been literally hundreds of donations made. It’s been a tremendous outpouring, almost like a revival within the community, and it’s awesome.”

The future is looking bright as well, according to Richardson, now chief executive officer of Place of Grace Rescue Mission.

“What I’m planning, I’ve got a list of about 25 local pastors and we’ll be inviting them to speak at New Life, with collections benefiting the Place of Grace,” Richardson said. “This brings community awareness and a sense of unity as well as an atmosphere of change. And it’s happening in this ministry because it is Christ-centered.”

The greatest part is seeing the people change, he said.

“Two are going to work for Burlington, two for Superior Cranes and two for McRae Electric,” Richardson said. “We’ve transitioned at this point 37 people, and right now we are serving up to 25 people.”

After the Baker House, Rockingham’s only homeless shelter at the time, burned in August 2013, the Richmond County Rescue Mission formed to fill the needs of the displaced by making sure they were fed, and when necessary, given shelter during inclement weather. Charles Thames, president of the mission, and a board of directors and officers took on the void left behind after the fire.

In May 2014, Place of Grace original co-founders Mark Joplin of Richmond County Transitional Services and Richardson approached the Richmond County Planning and Zoning Board of Adjustment to request a conditional-use permit allowing the Place of Grace to serve its intended purpose — even though it was a ministry and was contained entirely on property owned by the church.

After some debate and public comments, the board decided that there was no need for the pastor and Joplin to request a permit, but in consideration of concerns voiced by a small number of adjacent property owners, it also referred to part of a long-range plan submitted by the Place of Grace — specifically, a section expressing the ministry’s intent to move into a permanent structure.

After the hearing, board members asked that the Place of Grace return within 12 months with evidence showing its plan was on track. It didn’t take that long.

Within a matter of weeks, the Place of Grace received a hefty donation allowing it to lease a permanent building on Airport Road, and the tents that once housed the transitional homeless were relegated for use “only in emergencies,” Richardson said. So far, they have not needed to be used again.

In November, the Place of Grace and Richmond County Rescue Mission officially became one organization, renamed The Place of Grace Rescue Mission. Charles Thames said that the two organizations joining forces only made sense.

“I can’t say anything but good about it,” Thames said. “The merger was right on time, and I think it was just what the two organizations needed. Now, all we need is support from the community. The biggest need for us going forward is community support, and financial community support. It does cost a lot to do the kind of work we are doing. We’ve already helped so many people and have had some inspirational success stories. It’s a worthwhile effort and it is making a difference in people’s lives. It’s something the whole community can get behind and be proud of.”

Eddie James, a resident of three weeks, said the new shelter has exceeding his expectations in terms of accommodations and atmosphere.

“It’s just a very lovely place,” James said. “It’s fantastic, and you can’t beat it.”

One couple, who asked that their last names not be published due to concerns for their safety, said the Place of Grace Rescue Mission helped them out of a difficult situation.

The husband, who calls himself Yoshi, came to the shelter first several weeks ago to check it out as a possible solution for him and his wife, Faith. After becoming part of the community scrutinizing the Place of Grace Rescue Mission, he realized it would be a safe place for Faith, who joined Yoshi about a week and a half ago. They said they now know they have found a way to make a new beginning for themselves.

The Rev. Gary Richardson, now executive director of the combined group, said staff and volunteers are always looking for more people interested in working together and building a larger group, gathering all the efforts of homeless advocates throughout the county under one roof in order to get more accomplished.

There are other groups providing services for the homeless and poor and hungry on their own. The Richmond County Mental Health Society still operates the Hamlet Soup Kitchen every weekday. Church groups host meals and deliver hot food at drop-off points. And there’s the newly formed Christie’s Angels, who seek to provide clothing and toys to children whose families are unable to offer much in the way of gifts.

At the Place of Grace Rescue Mission, clients are looking forward to a great meal together for Christmas, as well as gifts donated by generous groups and families in Richmond County.

Pastors Gregory Locklear and Marvin Taylor of Outreach for Jesus will be hosting a dinner this Saturday for the homeless.

“It’s a very important dinner, from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the church just behind where the Baker House used to be before it burned,” Locklear said. “We hope that we will be able to feed a lot of people and see a lot of people there.”

Reach reporter Melonie Flomer at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @melonieflomer.